The Church at Pergamos, Part 3 of 4 (series: Lessons on Revelations)
by John Lowe
14 Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality.
Verse 14 opens with the words, “Nevertheless, I have a few things against you.” These words were spoken to the angel at Ephesus (2:4) and also to the angel at Thyatira (2:20). At Ephesus, it was the departure from first love. In Thyatira it was the corruption of doctrine; and here in Pergamos, it is plural “things,” pointing to more than just one evil. Always remember that when a minister begins to compromise in the least, the compromising will spread and grow. If we give the devil an inch he will take a mile. A believer cannot do business with the devil in any form, regardless of how insignificant or little it may seem. It does not seem to be such a terrible sin just to love the Lord Jesus a little less; but when our love cools, that always opens the door for other things to happen.
There can be no doubt about the seriousness of this heresy. “Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam.” Balaam was a picturesque individual with a reputation as a prophet, hired by King Balak to curse the children of Israel whose forward advance he feared. Balaam is mentioned a dozen times in Scripture (the history of Balaam is recorded in four chapters of the Old Testament (Numbers 22-25). He had God’s Word in his mouth while his heart was possessed with a satanic covetousness for the honors and rewards of this world. He made merchandise of the gospel, prostituting it for gain. That Balaam was greedy for gain is supported in 2 Peter 2:155 and Jude 11. He had unusual gifts and was an eloquent preacher, but he was willing to compromise for a price. He was a Gentile prophet with a most remarkable grasp of truth, a thorough knowledge of the character of God, a deep insight into the future of Israel, and possessed of a praiseworthy desire to die the death of the righteous. His two fatal lusts were for wealth and women. He is consistently held up to us in the New Testament as an outstanding example of an apostate. The cynical maximum, “every man has his price” was certainly true of Balaam. Although warned by God not to respond to Balak’s invitation, Balaam went anyway. Four times he sought to curse Israel, and each time God changed the curse into a blessing. Faced with the rising wrath of King Balak, fearing loss of his remuneration and possibly loss of liberty and life, Balaam came up with the devilish suggestion which has earned him his disgrace in Scripture. “My lord king,” he said, “If you cannot curse these people, then corrupt them” (see the Numbers 22-25).
The doctrine of Balaam, as summarized by the Lord in His letter to Pergamos, was in three parts. It was characterized first by the wisdom of this world. We are told that he taught Balak; “If you corrupt them,” he intimated, “then God will have to correct them; and if God corrects them, King Balak, you can be sure that their numbers will diminish and their threat to your kingdom will decrease. Their God is a holy and a jealous God. He will not stand by and allow them to sin against Him with impunity.” Balaam taught Balak how to use the holiness of God’s character for his own evil ends. Just as many today abuse the grace of God, so Balaam taught Balak how to abuse the government of God. How? By following Balaam’s advice Balak was making friends with Israel, and then inviting the Jews to worship and feast at the pagan altars. “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!”
The Jewish men fell right into the trap and many of them became “good neighbors.” They ate meat from idolatrous altars and committed fornication as part of heathen religious rites. Twenty-four thousand people died because of this disobedient act of compromise (Numbers 25:1-9). The congregation or the individual Christian that compromises with the world just to avoid suffering or achieve success is committing “spiritual adultery” and being unfaithful to the Lord.
Moreover, his doctrine was characterized also by the worship of this world. He “taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols.” His philosophy was simple: Involve
them in idolatry, and judgment will be swift and sure. The divine hatred of idolatry and anything connected with it blazes out again and again throughout Scripture. Balaam knew enough of the true and living God to realize that any deliberate entanglement by Israel in that which God consistently calls abomination would inevitably bring retribution upon them. The divine prohibitions against involvement in the idolatrous worship of this world are clear and plain.
Apparently, some in the church at Pergamum were followers of Balaam and were corrupting others in their attempt to justify idol worship—perhaps by joining in with civic ceremonies where idols were worshipped. Eating food offered to idols probably refers to these people’s taking part in pagan feasts. Sexual sin may also be understood as being part of certain pagan festivities.
The fact that a large segment of the professing church has espoused idolatry makes the judgment of Christendom certain and sure. Idolatry is satanic, however, it can be more subtle than the brazen worship and adoration of graven images. The doctrine of Balaam, in its broadest aspect, is to bring some object between the soul and God. It is all too easy to set up some cherished thing, some idolized person, some secret ambition, and allow that to come between us and God so that God is robbed of both worship and service.
The temptation to eat idol meats was a particularly strong one to the Gentile converts. For not to do so involved almost a withdrawal from partaking of any social meal with heathen friends. Idol meats, after a part had been offered in sacrifice, were almost sure to be on the heathen entertainer’s table.
Balaam’s doctrine was characterized by the wickedness of this world. He taught Balak, in a roundabout way, how to persuade Israel to sin by influencing some in Israel to worship idols by eating food offered to idols and by committing sexual sin. Many of the Canaanite cults employed sexual immorality as a part of religious worship. Balak seized on the idea and, so far as Israel was concerned, with a great measure of success. The doctrine of Balaam suggests simply that some wicked practices of the world are not really sinful and can be employed as a means of gaining an end.
So then, the doctrine of Balaam is really an attack upon the standards of separation and sanctification God expected Israel to maintain.
15 Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.
The Lord is emphatic in His repudiation of the doctrine of the “Nicolaitanes.” He says, “Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitanes.” The deeds of the Nicolaitanes are mentioned in the letter to Ephesus. The deeds have now become a doctrine. What was at first tolerated as an unscriptural practice is now accepted as an unscriptural principle. The Nicolaitanes were a sect whose deeds were strongly condemned. They may have been identical with those who held the doctrine of Balaam. They seem to have held that it was lawful to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication, in opposition to the decree of the Church rendered in Acts 15:206
and Acts 15:297
. The teachers of the Church branded them with a name which expressed their true character. The men who did and taught such things were followers of Balaam (2 Peter 2:155
; Jude 1:118
). The outstanding sin in the church at Pergamos was the sin of tolerating evil men and their teaching in the church.
These two groups, Nicolaitanes and the followers of Balaam, were essentially the same in their practices. The Nicolaitanes are described in 2:6 as those whose actions Christ hates. The believers in Ephesus had recognized the error of these people, but apparently, the believers in Pergamum were being deceived by it or tolerated it. The Nicolaitanes were Christians who had compromised their faith in order to enjoy the simple pleasures of their society and perhaps to be able to burn incense on the altar to the emperor to avoid the penalty for not doing so. Their sin was in compromising their faith for the world. They thought that the best policy was to peacefully coexist and go along with what they could of Roman society in order to be left alone. But such compromise could only dilute their faith; thus, Christ said it could not be tolerated.
Verses 16-17: The Lord is seen standing in the midst of the congregation at Pergamos with a two-edged sword. It is interesting that Balaam himself was slain with the sword (numbers 31:8; Joshua 13:22).